Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90

One of the most significant daily rituals in Judaism is laying Tefilin, strapping leather boxes containing scrolls with certain Torah verses onto one’s arm (against the heart) and one’s forehead (against the brain). According to the Torah, it is to remind our hearts and minds of our religious and social obligations. Initially Tefilin would be worn all day long, except on Shabbat and festivals. But over time custom dictated putting them on only during morning services. Nevertheless, some individuals have continued to wear them all day.

According to Jewish Law, women were relieved of ritual obligations related to time, because they had to be allowed the freedom to tend to the demands of children and home without constantly being preoccupied with other obligations. Therefore, as a rule and convention, women have not worn Tefilin. But in a more flexible environment, and given the different roles that some women have adopted in recent years, there has been, both in Orthodox and non- Orthodox circles, a tendency for more and more women to want to put on Tefilin, even if it is not an obligation for them.

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The decision of two schools in New York to allow girls who want to put them on during obligatory school services has created a storm in a teacup. Accusations of heresy and abandoning tradition have been hurled across the networks and blogs. Is this really so significant a challenge to the survival of traditional Judaism and mankind that it deserves so much attention? Or is it just another example of religious authority resisting any change on principle?

Judaism was always a way of life that emphasized doing, as much as thinking. Religious obligations were layered. At the top came the priests, whose daily regulations of ceremony and purity came with the obligation to look after the wider community as religious functionaries, teachers, doctors, and social workers. The layman had a raft of rules designed to get him to think about God and moral values at every stage in the working day. Women were relieved of obligations that were related to time, to give then the freedom to prioritize family and home over synagogue and public services. These differences were not issues of civil law, but exclusively ritual. They were indications not of superiority, but simply of different function.

The Talmud (Eiruvin 96a) mentions that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, wore Tefilin and no one objected. The Bible tells us that she had frowned on what she considered King David’s inappropriate public display of religious enthusiasm when he danced the tabernacle up into Jerusalem. She was punished for this by being barren. Her putting on Tefilin might have been thought of as an atonement or compensation. Alternatively, it might have been an example of the natural thing to do for a religious woman who had no obligation of children or housework to distract her. There are various sources that suggest that the medieval giant Rashi allowed his daughters to wear Tefilin. Perhaps this was in recognition of their significance in acting as his amanuenses and being so knowledgeable of Torah in their own right.

Jewish law allows one to take on extra obligations if one wishes to. The only issue in general is whether a voluntary act, as opposed to an obligatory one, requires a blessing or not.

The Talmud says that Tefilin should only be worn with a “clean body”. In medieval times some argued that women should be excluded from wearing Tefilin on the grounds that they could not control their periods. A typical medieval example of how women were regarded then. Because Biblically menstruation simply renders one unable to enter the sanctuary, as do a whole raft of other exclusions applicable to men as well as women, such as being in the same room as a dead person. That some societies regarded the menstrual period with fear and disgust is no more true to Judaism than objections to divorce. If that were the real reason for objecting to girls opting to wear Tefilin it could be argued that if men can be trusted to clean up, why not women too?

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Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.

40 COMMENTS

  1. experienced mochel, performs brit milah to open orthodox, liberal orthodox and reform orthodox ladies. special prices for the wow, special guest in our ceremonies , Iezavel hanevia

  2. What I would like to know is why there is not outward appearance things for a woman to wear to show she is Jewish and she is proud of who she is .. It seems everyone else does .. I’ve always thought there should be a female kipur , it’s a head covering..

  3. It’s not prohibited, it’s just unnecessary. A woman by being a woman fulfills the mitzvah. There’s is a reason the “box” on the Tefillin is called a bayit and so is the womb. It like a polar bear wearing a fur coat. If she wants to wear it – stay away and mind your own business.

  4. experienced mochel, performs brit milah to open orthodox, liberal orthodox and reform orthodox ladies. special prices for the wow, special guest in our ceremonies , Iezavel hanevia

  5. Jeremy, great article! Kol hakavod! One minor critique, you write: “If it is a feminist battle for supremacy, then I believe it misguided and bound to fail.” A true feminist battle is one for equality, not supremacy.

  6. All well and good, except these women aren't frum and their goal isn't spiritual elevation. By and large they are ultra liberals with ties to the Reform movement who want to bring the "benefits" of confusion they've spread in American to rain down on Israel.

  7. Rashi had his 4 daughters wear Tallit and Tefillin. Many early Torah sages and scholars ruled for women to wear tallit.

    Sefardic women have always worn a tallit, if they chose to. It was not even a matter of discussion among us.

    It was the medieval German Rabbi, Meir of Rothenberg, who forbid Ashkenazi women to wear tallit. Before him, it was not an issue for Ashkenazi women either.

  8. That could have been an example of Michals weakness – namely her arrogance toward her husband (King David). The book of Samuel 2 refers to her as “daughter of Saul” rather than “wife of David” to illustrate where she places her loyalty. Due to her misplaced priorities she is prevented from having more children

  9. Ben Yosef Shomer,
    Actually there is a prohibition. Men are commanded to sexually satisfy their wives. If they don’t, she has grounds for a divorce. By removing or impairing the clitoris you would indeed be preventing her from being sexually satisfied, and would cause her to be psychologically harmed. Therefore, female circumcision would be a prohibited act.

  10. Rashi had his 4 daughters wear Tallit and Tefillin. Many early Torah sages and scholars ruled for women to wear tallit.

    Sefardic women have always worn a tallit, if they chose to. It was not even a matter of discussion among us.

    It was the medieval German Rabbi, Meir of Rothenberg, who forbid Ashkenazi women to wear tallit. Before him, it was not an issue for Ashkenazi women either.

  11. Ben Yosef Shomer,
    Actually there is a prohibition. Men are commanded to sexually satisfy their wives. If they don't, she has grounds for a divorce. By removing the clitoris you would indeed be preventing her from being sexually satisfied, therefor, female circumcision would be a prohibited act.

  12. Is well known, that some righteous women, wear TT , and there is not prohibition about. But for reshaim like these provocative feminists, who try to play the righteous devote women every Rosh chodesh in front of the cameras? Very fanny to discuss even about

  13. Is well known, that some righteous women, wear TT , and there is not prohibition about. But for reshaim like these provocative feminists, who try to play the righteous devote women every Rosh chodesh in front of the cameras? Very fanny to discuss even about

  14. Robbie Goldstein exactly. But your reasoning takes us to the point that there ISN"T equality between men and women on matters of mitzvot or avodat Hashem, only different roles and mission.

  15. Robbie Goldstein exactly. But your reasoning takes us to the point that there ISN”T equality between men and women on matters of mitzvot or avodat Hashem, only different roles and mission. the male provides, the female receives. So is unfitted for women to be community rulers, rabbis or dayanim, and everybody who embrace the corrupted values of our modern society, simply is not connected with the eternal truth .

  16. It is doubtful most of them are doing it for the cameras. Many of these women were doing this every month for over 20 years. They just want to daven the way they want to daven. Why should it bother you? Are you such a control freak that you need to control how others pray? It is between them and HaShem, not you. And frankly, it is actually none of your business.

  17. Ben Yosef Shomer,

    First of all, you are not HaShem, thus, you do not know what the "eternal truth" actually is to even begin to make such a statement.

    Men and women may have different roles, but both sexes are fully capable providers and receivers in many areas, depending upon needs at the time.

    And, it could be said that women are providers on a level that is far greater- Our bodies provide a place for life to incubate… And then for life to be sustained. Should a woman reject a baby from her breast, it dies. That is a level of "providing" beyond what you fathom, or perhaps can face. She can also earn, grow, or catch her own food, and provide for shelter.

    Devorah was an extremely "fit" Dayan, so great that she is in the Torah, so you are quite incorrect in your statement. Women do have good brains.

    As for Rabbis and community rulers, you seem to negate that women have already served in those roles, and proven just as able. And, after menopause, there is no further discussion on how menstruation makes her unable to serve.

    What is "unfitting" is such a hatred and fear of women that it skews thinking.

  18. Ben Yosef Shomer,

    First of all, you are not HaShem, thus, you do not know what the “eternal truth” actually is to even begin to make such an arrogant statement.

    Men and women may have different roles, but both sexes are fully capable providers and receivers in many areas, depending upon needs at the time.

    And, it could be said that women are providers on a level that is far greater- Our bodies provide a place for life to incubate… And then for life to be sustained. Should a woman reject a baby from her breast, it dies. That is a level of “providing” beyond what you fathom, or perhaps can face. She can also earn, grow, or catch her own food, and provide for / build a shelter.

    Devorah was an extremely “fit” Dayan, so great that she is in the Torah, so you are quite incorrect in your statement.

    As for Rabbis and community rulers, you seem to negate that women have already served in those roles ( including Rashi’s daughters), and proven just as able. And, after menopause, there is no further discussion on how menstruation makes her unable to serve.

    What is “unfitting” is such a hatred and fear of women that it skews thinking.

  19. It is doubtful most of them are doing it for the cameras. Many of these women were doing this every month for over 20 years. They just want to daven the way they want to daven. Why should it bother you? Are you such a control freak that you need to control how others pray? It is between them and HaShem, not you. And frankly, it is actually none of your business.

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